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September 13, 2007
Ken Burns in Sacramento: 'Luddite' as filmmaker?

Editor's note: Ken Burns, creator of the upcoming PBS documentary "The War," is in Sacramento today, presenting excerpts of the film, doing a signing for a book connected with the project, and leading a screening at the Crest Theatre. We're stalking following the filmmaker for the day. Watch 21Q for updates.

Tv Burns The War.jpg

So here is Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary director, famous for a cinematic technique called "The Burns Effect," standing before a packed house at the California History Museum and trying in vain to get a DVD in the computer to project onto the screen.

Well, at least Burns had a sense of humor about it.

"Normally, I'd be travelling with my children to do this, but school's started," he says, adding later, "My Luddite status has been completely verified in front of you."

The crowd - ranging from World War II vets to high school history students to politicos such as Secretary of State Debra Bowen - ate it up, chuckling knowingly.

Once the technical difficulties were cleared up, Burns showed a 10-minute clip from the seven-part, 14-hour epic, which will premiere locally on Channel 6 on Sept. 23.

If you happened to glance at Burns during the preview, you would've thought he had never seen the footage before. (In fact, he spent six years gathering and editing footage.) Sitting in the front row, he leaned forward, hand on chin, intently watching. The images, clearly, still enthrall him.

It was somewhat surprising because you figured that - having trotted out the same footage and the same spiel during countless personal appearances the past few months - Burns would take the time to check his BlackBerry or maybe slip out the back for a breather.

But no - the guy has a certain evangelical zeal about "The War."

Before the museum appearance, Burns did interviews with News10's Jonathan Mumm and a crew from Capital TV News. His PBS publicist, Brian Moriarty, watched the 54-year-old Burns work the media and marveled at his stamina.

"I'm almost half Ken's age, and I feel like such a wuss because I can't keep up with him," Moriarty says. (Burns has got five rotating publicists from PBS - Moriarty handles the West Coast.)

After the interviews were over, Burns rejoined Moriarty and joked, "That was my 657th interview for this."

We'd say he's underestimating it a bit. Not only has Burns presented the documentary in each of the four cities featured - Sacramento, Luverne, Minn., Mobile, Ala., and Waterbury, Conn. - he's also recently made stops in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, etc.

"It's like a relay race," Burns jokes, "but there's no one for me to hand the baton off to."

Make no mistake, Burns is not complaining. He actively seeks every possible venue to hype the documentary - especially as its Sunday premiere will be going up against several new shows in the network fall TV season.

"It's the old high school corollary: If a tree falls in the forest and no one's there to see it fall...well, it's the same for me. If you make a documentary that you really are proud of and no one's there to watch it, did it really happen?" Burns says. "So I don't mind at all answering the same questions about it."

KFBK's Kitty O'Neal, the moderator of the museum event, tried to cover some new ground during the Q&A. O'Neal, noting that now, as then, there was a debate about how much information to give the public about the war, asked Burns to comment on the Iraq conflict.

And Burns didn't back down.

"We debate that very thing today," he says. "Our government doesn't even let us see the caskets coming home."

Burns' only other overtly political statement concerned public sacrifices today versus during World War II: "After 9-11, (the government) told us not to worry our pretty little head and go shopping. We perhaps could've tried to wean ourselves from foreign oil."

But he quickly added: "There's not a political bone in this documentary."

The biggest laugh came when O'Neal asked Burns why he chose Sacramento as a featured city.

Burns: "If you said, pick a West Coast city, your first choice would not be Sacramento." (Big laughs.) It has nothing to do with you. (Chuckles.) We fell in love with Sacramento. But if we chose other cities, like Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles, they'd come with too many preconceived notions."

Burns' next stop: a 2 p.m. book signing at The Avid Reader on 16th and Broadway.

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